Decoy with Joe McPhee – Spontaneous Combustion (OTOroku)

Decoy is the trio of John Edwards (double bass), Alexander Hawkins (Hammond B3) and Steve Noble (drums); on this recording of a live date at the Cafe Oto they were joined by the great Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet and alto sax.

Recordings of live performances are double edged in terms of appeal to the listener. On the one hand it offers a document of the evening to those that didn’t attend; but on the other hand, it can’t really hope to fully capture the ragged glory of an improv band in full swing. You miss the looks of concentration, the atmosphere in the room, the full experience of being in front of a great band with a group of likeminded people. These thoughts evaporate in the face of this brilliant album. Like another recording from the same venue, Alan Wilkinson trio’s ‘Live at Cafe Oto’, this is an essential album for fans of free jazz and adventurous music.

The first half of side A is an exercise in understated restraint. The sound is full of faltering percussive hits and gong work from Noble; sawing dissonance from Edwards and upper register squeaks and lip smacking blurts from McPhee; Hawkins’ presence isn’t properly felt until several minutes in when he begins cycling through several melodic mutations under McPhee’s increasingly strident runs and Miles-like extended drones. The air is thick with possibility and promise, each musician adding subtle shading and colour to each other’s playing. At ten minutes in, the band stumbles into a downhill race; Hawkins splashing thick stabs of Hammond everywhere while the rhythm section lock together in the usual Edwards/Noble mind-meld; McPhee sits back throughout, waiting for an entrance. And what an entrance! He finally enters the fray with long soulful notes strung like wilted bunting over the rest of the bands rumble and clatter. It quietens them to a murmur.

McPhee switches to alto sax for the B side and immediately ties a thick knot of sound which he picks at and unravels over the course of the next few minutes. Edwards is especially good on this side, taking a great solo where he grinds and scrapes his bass into oblivion over Nobles sparse spidery interventions. The band then embark on what sounds like a no-wave swing section before the reappearance of McPhee, blowing mournful contours into every stretch of sound, occasionally erupting in screams and violent blurts; Hawkins, again filling the air with vivid curtains of noise.

The playing individually and collectively is tremendous; each player sitting out for lengthy periods but re-entering with passionate commitment at the perfect moment. The recording is pin-drop clear. The audience were either edited out for most of the performance or were watching with rapt, silent attention; I suspect the latter. The intermittent cries and cheers throughout made me regret not being there but determined to catch the band when they play with Marshall Allen at the end of March.

This sounds like a truly special performance; exciting, reflective, full of action and incident; there is far too much going on to take in at one listen. Perhaps this is the benefit of the live recording, what is lost in not being there is regained in an ability to listen repeatedly, going back to moments you may have missed in the general stunned impression of the whole thing.

Listen to an excerpt and buy the album from here.

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